- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Three days after the tragedy of Beslan ended, we sat for more than 3 hours with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Between picking up the pieces of the worst terrorist attack to date in Russia and planning a massive power consolidation, the energetic Russian leader still found time to meet with leading Western scholars and journalists, answering our questions at length, totally unscripted.

Unfiltered, Mr. Putin was a strange mix of tough pragmatism and Soviet nostalgia. He was shaken by Walkie-Talkie intercepts of terrorists shooting children in Beslan “for fun” and by the horrible conditions in northern Russian camps to which Josef Stalin exiled the Chechens 60 years ago. “The first Chechen war was probably a mistake,” Mr. Putin said. But what about the second war he started in 1999?

Mr. Putin repeatedly bemoaned the passing of the Soviet “great power” — 13 years after its demise. He recognized Soviet ideology suppressed real ethnic conflicts, and that new secure borders have not been erected. Yet he also questioned the sovereignty of neighboring countries such as Georgia. Today, Russia is slowly absorbing its constituent parts, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while thwarting Chechen bids to secede.

President Putin missed an opportunity to reach out to the U.S. after the horror of Beslan. In response to my question, he launched a long tirade about the Soviet Union and United States releasing the jinni of terror from its bottle.

He believes the Western powers want to keep Russia down by supporting Chechen separatism, noting Britain and the U.S. granted asylum to some Chechen leaders, and that Western intelligence services maintain contacts with Chechen fighters.

As an intelligence professional, Mr. Putin should appreciate the difference between information gathering and operational support. Instead, he overstated his view of the West’s desire to create an irritant for Russia. In an earlier speech to the nation, Mr. Putin went further, saying foreign powers are interested in dismembering Russia and neutralizing it as a nuclear power. Nevertheless, he is open to antiterrorism cooperation, and indicated “professionals” on both sides are thus engaged.

President Putin left enough common ground to believe cooperation is possible with the West in the war on terror. He called President Bush a “good, decent man,” a reliable and predictable partner, someone he can “feel as a human being.”

From his remarks, it is clear Mr. Putin genuinely likes George Bush and wants him re-elected, something media at the event studiously ignored. After all, doesn’t John Kerry say foreign leaders are support him?

Mr. Putin three times mentioned Russia, the U.S. and Western Europe belong to “Christian civilization and European culture,” to which a prominent French writer for Le Monde commented maybe Russia does but not the United States.

Mr. Putin has the global geopolitics right, especially when it comes to connections between the Chechen and other radical Islamist terrorists in the Northern Caucasus, to global jihadi sources of funding, political-religious indoctrination and volunteer recruitment and training.

He criticized the West for allowing fund-raising for the Chechen cause from Michigan to London to Abu Dhabi, but seemed unaware the U.S. Treasury recently busted Al Haramain, a Saudi global “charity” connected to Osama bin Laden, involved in supporting the Chechens.

Mr. Putin also correctly noted the West shouldn’t want to see terrorists come to power anywhere on Earth, should not demand anyone negotiate with child killers, and that it is not in Western interests to see the Russian Federation dismembered.

It is the Russian president’s actions after Beslan, more than his rhetoric, which point to missed opportunities in the wake of Russia’s September 11. Instead of revamping, retraining and reorganizing Russia’s antiterrorist and security services, Mr. Putin has opted for massively recentralizing power. In doing so, he is taking the country back to a future reminiscent of the czarist era. Mr. Putin essentially is applying the 19th century Russian imperial model and the Soviet security state apparatus to a 21st century state rife with terror and corruption.

Nostalgia for the Soviet past may beget new authoritarianism, as Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev warned in their Sept. 16, 2004 interviews. In this crisis, the Russian president has empowered himself and his inner circle, not the people of Russia. Presidential appointment of Russia’s 89 regional governors instead of popular elections, and establishment of a disempowered and toothless “public chamber” to oversee security services instead of effective civilian controls will not solve Russia’s terrorism problems.

The security services that failed to prevent or resolve the Beslan tragedy and Mr. Putin has not reformed after five years in office are still a Soviet-style, quasi-totalitarian political control mechanism. They are not the hat Russia needs to wear in confronting modern local and global terrorism.

Islamist jihadi terrorism is a new enemy — not the old enemy of the Cold War. In response, Russia’s antiterror approach needs rethinking and revamping, with new structures for the 21st century set up to deal with global terrorism.

A new anti-terror doctrine and effective organizational structure to coordinate intelligence and operations are needed. The U.S., Great Britain and Israel can offer help. The time for cooperation against a common enemy is now.

The Bush administration, however, faces a real challenge in Russia’s questioning of Georgia’s sovereignty in the Caucausus and playing fast and loose with her post-Soviet borders.

By trying to pull South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Moscow’s orbit, the Kremlin also may strengthen Chechen separatism. This policy opens the doors to revising other borders, such as Northern Kazakhstan, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and even Nagorno-Karabakh. Undermining the territorial integrity of neighbors is unacceptable to the U.S. and dangerous for Russia.

In crises, countries and leaders fall back on their time-tested political instincts and patterns. Mr. Putin’s recentralization proves Russia after its barbaric terrorist trauma is no exception.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation. He had tea Sept. 6 with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a group of foreign policy experts.

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